Submitted by blazej on Sat, 11/10/2018 - 13:16
Margaret P. Bowditch

WE LIVE IN southeastern Pennsylvania, on the edge of USDA hardiness zone 7, but some winters can have times of zone 6 weather. In the warmer half of the year we live in coastal Maine in a zone 5 climate. I have cyclamen in both places, but most are in Pennsylvania.  Growing these little treasures is not an instant gratification project, as it takes 2 – 3 years from seed to garden plant, but the reasons for growing cyclamen are many. These plants produce their pink or white flowers when little else is in flower, and they are often fragrant. In addition to the blooms,  their foliage alone would make them worth growing. Foliage can be plain green, silver, pewter, or elegantly patterned and is attractive at least 6 months of the year. We used to live in a house with all sorts of gardening situations indoors and out, but for the last 4 years we have lived in a retirement community in a 3-room apartment with small gardens outside. So I am challenged to find microclimates, etc., but gardeners are born for challenges. Despite the challenges, I have found a method that works for me, and I end up with too many plants and have to give them away or sell them at plant-group benefits. 

 While cyclamen are native to the Mediterranean and surrounding areas, some are hardy in Pennsylvania and Maine, and I order the ones suited to my outdoor growing conditions. The hardiest are Cyclamen hederifolium, C. coum and C. purpurascens.  Somewhat less hardy but worth trying here are C. mirabile, C. cilicium, and C. intaminatum. Some C. mirabile of the Tilebarn series have leaves that emerge with pink leaf markings. This color may startle the timid but the technicolor effect fades as the leaves mature. I grow my C. purpurascens in Maine as they have summer flowers with an intensely sweet fragrance,  and I want them where I can enjoy them. The other species are planted in Pennsylvania in well-drained soil in partial shade. There C. hederifolium blooms from late summer through the fall and the leaves decorate the garden for many months from fall to spring, while C. coum blooms late winter into spring. The other species bloom on a slightly different schedule but mostly spring or fall.

Ordering seeds is the first step. My seeds come from the plant societies I belong to including NARGS, the Alpine Garden Club of British Columbia, and the Cyclamen Society. As I live in the US, only the NARGS seeds come without the necessity of having a seed import permit. Seeds are harvested in the summer and the fresher the seed, the faster the germination. Years ago, Ellen Hornig sent fresh seed in the summer, but that is no longer possible, as her wonderful Seneca Hill Nursery has closed. 

When I began growing cyclamen, I simply planted them in seed pans, put them in a cold frame, and waited a season or more before germination. This process works and many growers have success with this simple method, but now I use a faster, more reliable method to speed the process and achieve higher rates of germination. The first step of my germination process starts when the seeds arrive and I make labels. I have learned that all cyclamen seeds, unless newly harvested, benefit from a day’s soaking before planting, so I soak each variety in a separate little plastic bag with the label attached. While the seeds are soaking, I prepare the seed pans and soil. I make drainage holes in aluminum foil mini loaf pans and fill them with a mix of houseplant potting soil amended with Turface (a baked calcined clay product used to add porosity to soil) and grit. I wet each container down with boiling water and let them cool. Once the soil is cool, I distribute the seeds over the soil surface as evenly as possible. It is important to place the seeds so that they are not close to each other, as they will likely be in the seed pan for years. The usual advice is to cover all with a layer of grit but I use a thin layer of Turface. Others find this an invitation to liverworts and other unwelcome visitors but that hasn’t been a problem for me. The benefit of Turface as a top dressing is that it is a perfect indicator of water needs, changing from a dark beige color when wet to a light beige when dry. When the seeds are sown and covered, I place the pans in a 60-degree place where they can germinate in the dark.  By turning down the heat in my bathroom, I can create a perfect cool, dark place for germination in the closet. I have persuaded myself that not having warmth in the bathroom is worth it for the seeds that germinate in a closet there.  Luckily my husband has his own bathroom. In dark, cool conditions, cyclamem seeds germinate in anywhere from 3 weeks to a year. As soon as I see little leaves poking up, I move that pan to a space under fluorescent plant lights running 16 hours a day  in my bedroom. Although they would do better if grown at 60 degrees, the bedroom is at 70 degrees with a small drop in temperature at night. In early spring, all seed pans, even the C. purpurascens that may not have germinated, go outside into a north-facing cold frame. Then in May we head to Maine. I ship my clothes so that my plants and seedlings can travel by car. In Maine, my seedlings live on the eastern end of a porch and seem to do well. When they return to Pennsylvania the cyclamen seedlings spend the winters in the cold frame until the tubers are at least ½ inch in diameter, big enough for life in the garden. Some make the Maine journey several years before getting big enough to be planted out. 

One seedling solved a problem for me this fall. I’d signed up to enter a flower show, and all my possible entries for the class “Flowering Plant” went into decline. There was no point in lugging a large substandard plant to the show. But just in time, a tiny C. hederifolium ‘Lysander’ poked up through the mix with a lovely flower and patterned leaf. So I took my 11-month old baby up in a 1-inch clay pot with a top dressing of grit. It was dwarfed by others’ entries but got a second prize. Then a different panel of judges looked at entries and read the detailed information card that accompanied each exhibitor-propagated plant. Perhaps it was the story of the cold bathroom or tiny ‘Lysander’s charm, but it got a national award, the ribbon far larger than the plant. Hence another reason for growing cyclamen.